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Calypso travails and challenges

Published: 
Sunday, January 21, 2018

Forty years and descending, what do you make of the controversies which surrounded the Caribbean Man, Om Shanti, Common Entrance, Jahaaji Bhai, Little Black Boy and more? Then the calypsonians were slammed and praised both for including and excluding Indo-Trinidad, and for their brand of “black nationalism”.

Dr Louis Regis in his new book teases out the calypso and its centrality to the issues of Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism—on occasion, Black Nationalism, in a Trinidad and Tobago divided by race and class.

The study grapples with the path and tradition of the calypso, its twists and turns; its contradictions; its potential for engaging and enraging deep-seated feelings and dispositions; its capacity to divide the nation state into its black/afro and brown, Indo-Trinbagonian existence, at the same time that its calls for “togetherness”.

The chosen period of the study, 1970-1998, arguably the highest peak of self-questioning and self-searching, provides a most fertile ground for examination.

After placing his subject in the frame of the theory of sociology, Regis does a short but intensive historical grounding of the issues from the 18th century Cedula of Population, through the many conflagrations to the end of the 20th century.

To grapple with and manage the enormity of the subject, the author divides his analysis of the calypsoes, the singers, the audience, commentators, academics, journalists and defenders of group interests: those critical, those welcoming of the black nationalist calypsoes as an expression of their own, into chapters of black Nationalism in Song: the Masters of Malice, the Anatomy of the Controversy, Towards Building a Nation Song and his Conclusion.

As the stand-out calypsonians and their songs of the genre of Nationalism, Dr Regis identifies Black Stalin’s Caribbean Man—his focus on a Caribbean identity for the black man through Rastafarianism to the exclusion of others; Valentino’s No Revolution, a response to Dr Williams’ handling of the Black Power Revolution inclusive of what the singer’s interpretation of the objective of the demands for “Power to the People”.

Maestro and his calls for Black Identity, to force Mr Trinidadian to a sense of consciousness and his Portrait in Black, “cumulatively”, as Regis analyses, the calypsonian is urging the “African to take stock of what Maestro sees as his precarious position in a world where increasingly radicalized politics is impacted by class.”

Chalkdust is treated specially, his back and forth between Williams, his hero historian, his politics of nationalism, but, like Maestro, he is critical of the politics of the “Doctor”.

One very insightful passage of the author is his identification of the melodic and spiritual intervention of Ella Andal, the Orisha queen, and David Rudder, his poetry to melody, which brought “volcanic energies of African music,” to the nationalism of the calypsonian.

If the master lyricists who went before aimed at consciousness, “Ella and Rudder” achieved “harmonization of the spiritual and secular aspects of the African experience….” Ella’s “Bring Down the Power” being the apogee of the experience.

In the chapter Masters of Malice, the assignment of the critics to the stinging, acerbic, provocative and often divisive work of Cro Cro, Sugar Aloes and Watchman. If the first two expressed their political and therefore ethnic/racial partisanship (PNM), Watchman, the UWI student and police officer named himself the “Leader of the Opposition”, as he savaged not only Robinson and the National Alliance for Reconstruction, but did not spare the PNM his blows.

The reader is allowed by the passage of time an opportunity for reflection on the commentaries, academic, journalistic, religious, prime ministerial, the defenders of their race/ethnicity and those who were considered non-nationalistic.

But be prepared for a roller-coaster ride, tossing one way then the other, legitimizing one perspective then the other.

Notwithstanding the travails and the challenges facing the calypso, Regis asserts “yet it is the calypsonian who best enunciates the new directions for the shape of the society”.

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